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Trip Report Trip Report: Whirlwind tour of Belgium by a novice (long)

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Background: 1st trip to Belgium. Upper 30’s professional with business in Liege. Arrived 2 days earlier to see some sights. The tourist part of the trip is faster pace than I would normally do. This is more like a hi-lites or advanced scouting trip. I’ve been to Milan on business and UK/Spain with my family for vacation. That’s my only other European travel. This is for all the other novices out there. This is also my first trip report. I hope I’m not too detailed.

Flight: Indianapolis – Atlanta – Brussels. Uneventful flights. I got a few hours of “rest” though there wasn’t much of a window when they weren’t pushing food, etc. Arrived at 8:30 am.

Day 1 (Sunday) -- Brussels

After a slight delay (45 min?) going through immigration, I whisked through the baggage area (no checked bags) and proceeded down to the train level. I purchased a 3 euro ticket to Brussels Central. I was expecting a little more signage at the train level (there was none). There were multiple tracks and trains that I assume all led into the city, but I couldn’t tell. Perhaps a wiser fellow would have noticed something at the ticket level. I got on the first train and took it in. I was aware that Brussels has 3 stops with Central being the 2nd. I wasn’t expecting the first 2 non Brussels stops so that threw me a bit (being the novice that I am). I guess I was expecting more Metro/Subway level of signage and communication. [As it turns out, the signs were better the rest of the trip.] At any rate, I made it to Central without any trouble.

I popped out of an exit and headed down hill. I was pleased to find my hotel (Ibis Grand Place—great location!) just a few blocks away. They were kind enough to check me in early (pre 10 am) and I got cleaned up. I then walked the few short blocks to Grand Place. It had started to rain, but fortunately I brought an umbrella.

I found the tourist info near City Hall and got a map. I was looking around the square to get oriented: City Hall (300’ tower), gray King’s House opposite City Hall, Swan House with bronze statue, etc.

I had an old 2005 Rick Steve’s guidebook that I was going to follow for the various walks. My plan was to “do” Brussels in a day by doing the lower and upper walks but not as many of the museums. I decided to go ahead and check off the Manneken-Pis to help calibrate how much walking I would be doing. People can tell you it’s small and you can expect it to be small but . . . it’s really small. He had some silly outfit on too. I people watched for awhile as there was a decent amount of foot traffic here compared to GP.

My body still didn’t know what time it was and I had skipped the airplane rubber biscuit for breakfast so I grabbed a waffle with strawberries, bananas and a little chocolate sauce near MP (4 euros). Yum. There a quite a few of these places around . . . don’t know if one is better than the other or not.

I walked back to GP and decided to duck into the City Museum in the King’s House. The permanent descriptions are in French/Dutch but they did have some laminated English handouts for most things. 1st floor didn’t do much for me. I enjoyed the 13th century Brussels model on the 2nd floor. I was getting a little sleepy as I made my way through the 17th century model and MP outfits. I decided I needed a caffeine infusion and that I needed to stay more active than museum browsing on this jet lagged day.

After the coffee and people watching, I hit a few of the sites near GP. The Galeries Royales St. Hubert were fun to walk through – sort of a Milan (very) lite. Clothing prices were crazy. I looked into a few of the chocolate shops but I wasn’t ready for eating or purchasing. I walked the gauntlet that is the Rue des Bouchers restaurant row (reminded me of getting hawked for souvenirs in Cancun). I walked around the Church of St. Nicolas and the Bourse. Stopped to have another coffee and people watch as the sun had finally come out.

Next up was to try the Upper Town sites. It was only 10 minutes or so from the Bourse, though it was uphill. The exercise was helping me stay alert (along with the 2 doses of caffeine). I started at the Place Royale (not to be confused with the Royale Palace) and got a good view of the city down “below” (though the view of the statue below isn’t as good (SE end of the large NW oriented horse)).

I crossed over to the Parc de Bruxelles and enjoyed watching the locals take their kids for a stroll and play with their dogs. There was an impromptu “concert” from 3 guitarists and a percussionist that was nice to listen to. From there I saw the Belgian Parliament building and then back around to the Royale Palace. I back tracked back down Rue Regence and saw the sculpture garden, Norte Dame du Sablon Church, the Place du Petit Sablon (another nice resting spot) and the Palace of Justice. From there was a really good view of the city including seeing the Atomium which is about 6 miles away (so they say). I walked back through Sablon and then backtracked to the Museum of Music. It was getting late so I just rode to the top for the view and came back down.

I enjoyed both the lower and upper town walks and appreciated their differences (old vs not as old). It gave me a decent overview of the city center which was what I was looking for in my 1 day tour.

I had dinner at Chez Leon on Rue des Bouchers. I wanted to try the mussels and got the smaller special and a Maes beer. They were okay, though I was expecting better. I understand that this is the one time they aren’t in season here. I think I would have preferred a different seasoning, but I got the one that came with the special. I’d order something different next time. I finished off the evening by picking up a few chocolates at La Belgique Gourmande (very tasty but I’m no connoisseur).

Day 2 (Monday)—Ghent

I got going relatively early since I crashed around 9 pm the previous night. I bought a round trip ticket from Brussels Central to Ghent for 16,20 Euros. This train was much nicer than the airport train. Too nice, in fact. I was evidently sitting in the 1st class section (oops, I guess that 1 on the train didn’t stand for car #1, :-) ). Even so, once in my proper seat this regional train was nicer. It also had electronic signs inside to announce the stops. Once at the St. Pieter’s station, I bumbled my way to the Tram #1 Korenmarkt stop and paid my 1,20 in the machine. I had it stamped but from what I can tell it’s essentially an honor system since it wasn’t checked either time.

I followed the crowd out and realized that they weren’t all tourists and were heading elsewhere. It took a little while to get oriented since there are a lot of churches around. Note: the tram stop is by the McDonalds which makes locating it later easy.

I was early (9:00 or so) and the place was empty. I walked around a bit and then took in St. Bavo’s at 9:30. The upper alter was under renovation (as was the crypt) but there was still plenty to see. The pulpit was very ornate and over the top (literally). At 10 I walked over to the tourist info to get a map and put my name in for the guided walk later. I went back to the church and saw The Mystic Lamb. It was impressive. There were only a few of us in there at first, but before I was finished a tour bus and college art class had been dropped off and it was wall-to-wall people. Good time to leave.

I then walked over to the Belfry and took the lift up and walked down to the intermediate floors. Worthwhile. I then started on the self-guided walking tour that was suggested by the TI. Outside of the Vrijdagmarkt, there was a fruit stand so I grabbed some cherries to munch on and watched as the crowd started to grow there as well. I continued over the bridge and past Alijn Hospice. A boat was ready to leave so I grabbed the last seat on the tour. I enjoyed the tour and the water level view. It must have been laborious for the guide to give the talk in 3 languages but she managed well.

My stomach was rumbling so I stopped at Krokantino for a beer and croquet. I order a shrimp topped one and they were some shrimpy shrimp (not what I was expecting). They kinda looked like larvae so that wasn’t the most appealing presentation, but they tasted fine. I’d get something else if ordering again. I grabbed 3 chocolates from Leonidas (1,05) for dessert.

I ambled back over to the Belfry area and hung out in the square until the tour. Five people had signed up and I was the only English speaking one. One guide took the two Dutch and the other took the two French speakers and me. I felt bad because it made for a lot of standing and waiting to get the double explanation. We got an extensive trip inside the city hall and then started the opposite way I had from my earlier walk: Fountain of Kneelers, Grote Triomphante, Metselaarshuis, St. Nicolas’ church, etc.

I must admit that the tour was a little more detail than I wanted at this stage of the day. The dual language bit was resulting in more standing than I wanted so I bailed out when we got to the Castle of Counts. I wanted to see that in more detail and it was getting close to last admittance. I really enjoyed the well laid out castle. It had numbered signs leading you through and descriptions in 4 languages. The torture museum was interesting but not for the faint at heart. After that, I was done so I took Tram #1 (Flanders?) back to the train station and the train back to Central.

“Dinner” was a crawl at 3 restaurants. I had the beer palatte at A La Bacasse (for only 5,60). I enjoyed the uniqueness of local selections. Dinner was at the Danish Tavern (beer and croquet—no shrimp!, 9 euros) since some musicians were playing outside the Bourse. I then walked a few blocks to La Maison de Crepes for a chocolate and banana crepe and coffee (7,70). I’ve enjoyed the food, but I can’t say I’ve had anything that knocked my socks off. We have a Belgian restaurant in Indianapolis that must be pretty good (or has colored my expectations) because it’s every bit as good or better than what I’ve tried so far.

Day 3 (Tuesday) – Liege

Not much to discuss here. My business was in Bierset near Liege. I took the train to the airport and met my associate there. We drove 1 hr to Liege. After the business meeting we checked into the Holiday Inn in Liege which was recommended by our hosts. Pretty drab but functional. I can’t say I saw Liege, but our host did take us to a wonderful Italian restaurant (La Cantina). I didn’t see the bill but I imagine it wasn’t cheap.

Day 4 (Wednesday) – Bonus in Brugge

We had reserved 2 days for business but finished up mid morning. We drove back to Brussels and I checked into the airport Holiday Inn (nice, but pricey, business hotel). I decided to try to squeeze in Brugge. My associate drove me to Central (mistake) and I just caught the train to Brugge (round trip ~28 euros). I arrived at 3 pm and had to make some tough choices given the time. It was a really nice day so I walked into town along the gray pavers – about 10 minutes. Brugge was swarming with people and it was a little challenging for me to get oriented at first (especially with the time pressures). I decided to see the Michelangelo Madonna and Child first. I then walked over to sign up for the Straffe Hendrik brewery tour at De Halve Moon prewbub. There were probably 25 or so in the tour so it was a little hard to hear everything, but I thought the guide did really well. Plenty of humor along the way. The best part, of course, was the beer at the end. A Brugse Zot blonde was included and I also got a Brugse Zot double. Very smooth. I met a nice couple from Seattle in the patio area.

By now, it was 5 and the crowd had dwindled considerably. I passed Dumon chocolate shop and was surprised to see it open (RS said it was closed on Wednesday). The shopkeeper had fun complaining about RS and his mistakes. She also mentioned that today was particularly crowded (with Americans!) because a cruise ship and dropped a load off. The samples were delicious so I bought 2 small boxes for souvenirs.

I started my walking tour which primarily included the Market Square (Belfort) and the Burg. Shops were starting to close and the streets empty. Since I couldn’t get into the museums, I decided to head to the NE and see the windmills along the moat. It took longer than I expected and was underwhelming. Oh well.

I walked back to the Market and had a beer (Leffe blond) and a baguette at Café-Brassiere Craenenburg with a perfect view of the Bell Tower. I was tired of eating by this point in the trip. Calories and energy were more focused on the drinking! Pooped, I walked back to the train station and took the 8 pm back to Central, switched to the airport and then grabbed the hotel shuttle. Back at 10 – long day!

Day 5

Heading home. Normal travel stuff. I grabbed some more chocolate (Godiva truffles and Neuhaus for the kids) at the airport. I had hoped to get some t-shirts but the selection was very poor. Bad decision to wait on that. Long delay at passport control in Atlanta. Customs was quick as was security re-check.


I know I didn’t give any city its proper due, but I was glad to do an overview tour. I enjoyed it and made notes for the future. I think my family would have enjoyed it, but we will probably hit some other European destinations first.

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